Can a new e-learning platform improve the employment of visually impaired people?
Despite being able to hold a variety of jobs, people who are blind or partially sighted tend to have low job placement rates, low wages, and an unusually high rate of underemployment. But some advocates say more accessible tech platforms could be key to changing that.
Typically, jobs for the blind and visually impaired fall into either the low-skilled, low-wage job category or professional jobs that require a college education category, says Edward Bell, director of the career development department and from the Louisiana Tech University Research Institute. Blindness.
“While people who are blind are able to do a lot of jobs, like working in the service industry or in manufacturing, employers are extremely concerned about safety fears,” says Bell.
That excludes a lot of jobs. Thus, the jobs available to visually impaired people are often jobs that are perceived as physically safe, which usually means that they involve sitting still, such as telemarketing or working in a call center, or which are professional jobs like teaching or law. , he says.
The good news, according to Bell, is that a college education and vocational training, especially the use of a white cane and Braille, are associated with better employment outcomes.
However, the accessibility of on-the-job training can be a stumbling block.
A report on technology in the workplace from the American Foundation for the Blind, published this month, notes that many people who are blind, visually impaired or deafblind say they experience difficulty in accessing training in the workplace.
According to foundation researchers, study participants described issues with online training incompatible with screen-reading software or visual tweaks like changing font size, with quizzes not did not work with a keyboard and with educational images and videos. that have not been verbally described.
Many participants say they needed the help of a manager or co-worker to complete the mandatory training, the report notes, leading to delays and feelings of exclusion.
“Sometimes people assume that I can’t participate because I’m blind, when the real problem is that the material hasn’t been provided or is not accessible,” says a participant quoted as part of the ‘study.
More inclusive platforms
At least one startup is gaining traction in building a possible solution.
The company, Clusive, Inc., says it can improve employment outcomes for the visually impaired through software and services for teaching remote and technical job skills. The company describes itself on its website as the first online learning platform designed for and by the blind and visually impaired.
“When I discovered the magnitude of this problem, I became really committed to solving it: breaking down the barriers between the modern workforce and the blind population,” says Clusiv CEO Lukas Simianer.
The company acts as a training provider for public vocational rehabilitation and blind service agencies across the country. Clusive trains what its executives call “accessibility engineers” who can go into companies and determine if their software is “really usable” for people who are blind or visually impaired. The founders say they see demand for their system, though they won’t disclose the number of current users.
People who are blind are often prevented from feeling “intellectually valued,” according to Simianer, who says her own academic experience was marred by a diagnosis of dyslexia and can relate to the need to feel valued and engaged, a need that is also relevant. for the educational process. Usually, for example, screen readers are “dull and boring,” he says, adding that using voice acting and other techniques that engage visually impaired learners has helped them figure out how to make information stick.
The company has raised $576,000 in pre-seed funding from venture capital firms, and it expects to close with a total of $700,000, with an expected launch in the first quarter of 2022.
Gaps and Obstacles
Some research has suggested that gaps in labor market participation between the visually impaired and the non-disabled population still exist, but have narrowed over time. However, the gap between the visually impaired and other disability categories, such as hearing difficulties, has increased “significantly”, which may indicate unique accessibility issues or structural barriers for people who are blind or partially sighted. .
If there’s a single structural barrier to visual impairment, says Bell of Louisiana Tech, it’s likely resource restrictions around the Rehabilitation Services Administration, the Department of Education agency that provides rehabilitation services. professionalism, and the lack of training of most advisers. have for visual impairments.
Part of the problem, Bell says, is that blind people need more work to learn “pre-vocational skills” — reading Braille and using a white cane, for example.
With other disabilities, such as deafness or spinal cord injury, “pre-vocational skills” are usually taken care of during the medical insurance process, so by the time they get to vocational rehabilitation, they are ready to work, says Bell. In contrast, people with blindness or visual impairment often leave vocational rehabilitation not ready to go to work right away.
“The problem is [learning these prevocational skills] takes time, is quite expensive and [vocational rehabilitation] advisors often feel pressured to close cases quickly and cheaply,” says Bell.